There Are More Pretty Good Ways Than One: A Subway Story

Like a ripe pear along a long, skinny branch, Park Slope — recently named by New York Magazine as the best neighborhood in the city! — lies primarily along the lonely F line, defying, with its property values, its solitary, single-line, all local-stop subway access to Manhattan.

My family and I moved this year to Park Slope, and I've been exploring the mysteries of the F line, as well as other ways to get to my office here at Regional Plan Association at 14th and Irving. What it's showing me is the flexibility and resilience of the city's transit system. It's showing me I have options. It's a blessing not all our region's residents have, particularly those from outside the city proper, who often depend on one line of a commuter rail system.

As our Connecticut director, David Kooris, pointed out to me in a recent conversation, one of the best things about the New York subway and bus system is the multiplicity of lines it offers, and thus often a multiplicity of choices on how to reach a given destination. The region's transit system, David said, particularly toward the core, functions much like a traditional street grid, giving travelers many choices, and thus avoiding overloading any one line or point.

This is true even in Park Slope. But even putting aside choices, I found the much-maligned F better than I expected. Although my journey to RPA at Union Square required 13 stops and a transfer, I liked the trajectory over the open-air elevated trestle over the Gowanus canal and the glimpse of sunshine and towers. I arrived in about a half hour, a faster time than I expected.

For the transfer I switched at 6th Avenue and 14th street. From there I could take the L train to Union Square or walk the half-mile or so.

But David said that when he lived in Brooklyn, he would switch at Broadway/Lafayette from the F to the 6 train, walking outside to do so. As long as you have an unlimited ride Metrocard, this was no problem because you didn't have to pay an extra fare. I tried it, and it was good.

Then I found another possibility on my own. Looking at the subway map, I saw that I could take the G line all the way to Williamsburg, and then switch to the L at Lorimer Street/Metropolitan Avenue and come at Union Square from the east. I found that not only was it as fast as taking the F, I was more likely to get a seat on the less full G train. I felt smug about taking a Queens-bound G train to Manhattan.

But the choices didn't end there.

I usually walk my son to school in the morning, and taking the F train at my usual stop in Park Slope requires backtracking a few blocks after dropping him off.

So one day recently I realized I could walk down to 4th Avenue, outside of Park Slope proper, and take the R train all the way to Union Square. For some reason I had missed that as a possibility. The R train made a lot of stops, but again it was about a half hour total, including walk time. And the train went right to Union Square.

Another way to do it, I realized, would be to simply keep walking all the way to Nevins Street in downtown Brooklyn and get on the 4/5 train, an express train for most of the journey. The longish walk would be good exercise. I haven't had a chance to try that yet.

I'm sure some alert readers will write in and tell me of some more possibilities I've missed. With the free transfers, maybe I could take a subway to a bus, or bus to a subway. The New York City Transit system resembles, in a pleasurable way, a kids' game where you figure out the best route through a tangle of lines from one point to another.

The transit system is facing big difficulties these days, mostly not of its own making, but of the politicians who have refused to adequately fund it. Some of the best attributes of the system, like having multiple subway and bus lines to choose from, and good frequency of service, are under threat because of the need to save money. This is to be lamented and fought. But while we are fighting, we should still count our blessings that we live in a city and region where there is often more than one way to get around.